The Sagittal Cut (part III) the diverse interests of somanauts

Something I really appreciate about being in the lab, is the freedom to explore. There is a systematic way that as a group, we go about our somatic exploration, but there is room to deepen any exploration you choose.
Generally, the first few days are quite structured and, once we reach the viscera, somanauts begin to veer off into areas of personal interest. This is where I learn the most.

Once in a #dissectionlab, I had a tablemate who wanted to cut everything in half to have a look inside. Our method generally, is to peel away the layers in the same way you would peel an onion but this guy wanted to cut right through. As a result, I saw some amazing things in that lab.

Our donor, “Art”, was a 98 year old gift of beauty. He came to us with a speedo suntan and an erection that would be the envy of many– the embalming process fills the body with fluid, giving the male donors something they can be proud to show off in the lab.
When we opened Art’s gallbladder, he revealed to us a large gallstone which our tablemate cut it in half. WOW! The stone when whole, was about the size and shape of large macadamia nut. It was black with a deep emerald green hue, which in and of itself was beautiful. What we found inside was astonishing. It was a clear crystal stone! We joked about how things might have gone down if he’d had it surgically removed and turned it into a piece of jewelry: “my, what a gorgeous stone!”… “Thank you. I made it myself. IN. MY. GALLBLADDER!”

Another time, someone in the lab was interested in bone. This person cleaned off all the bones and held together the joints while moving them in anatomical ways. I had never before seen such obvious rotations and glides that are somewhat unique to each body. For the anatomists out there, this is really something to see (think about the pivot of the radial head against the ulna).
Imagine having a dental assistant in the lab, pulling teeth. Artists sketching what they see. Curious minds shaving away the tissue of the lungs to reveal the tree like structures of the bronchioles. Dissecting the matrix that holds together your fat cells…

The body has so much to reveal, and the different views shown to us by differing fields of interest are so valuable. Which brings me to the WHY of The Sagittal Cut: Each time I have been in the lab we have looked at the brain in the same way. Basically, the skull cap is removed so that we can pull out the intact brain and have a look at the underside where the cranial nerves are (so cool). So a few years ago, I set out to do the familiar. Just before the first cranial cut, Gil suggested I do something different: cut sagittally. So I did, and although this gave a really cool view of the pineal and pituitary glands, the corpus callosum and cerebellum, this was all very foreign territory to me and overwhelm made me miss almost everything.

After returning home and going back to work, holding a head in my hands at the end of a treatment, I had so much regret over not exploring the sinuses, the nasal cavity and the muscles that move the jaw and the eyes.
The following year, I attended an unfixed lab (where the bodies are not embalmed). This was such a different look into the body, that all previous experience was set aside to take it all in. It would be another year before I got back to the head to explore all the things that continued to pique my curiosity.

Pictured here are green aventurine stones, not actual #gallstones but I wanted to you have a visual of the beauty.

The Sagittal Cut (part II) Getting to know the donors

Our donor in my biased opinion, landed in the best place one could ask for if you were to have a voice with which to do so. In Gil’s lab, the gift of body donation is emphasized often. We have an obligation to look at every aspect and wring out as much learning and discovery as we can. My group affectionately referred to our form as “Sir”, and days into the week, we were given a bit of his story: he had inhabited this body for 89 years before passing it on to us to explore. No irony for us to find out that “Sir” had been an elementary school teacher. This was the first time for me that we were given more than the age of death and the recorded cause. You can imagine the “ooooos”, the outpouring of love and acknowledged coincidence of how we called him Sir.

While we do remain quite clinical in the lab, the person, their life and personality are very close to us. We have no information, but the body tells a story. Well, we like to think it does and theorize a lot about why things look the way they do. We know these are theories but human dissection in many ways is self-dissection. When you explore something as deeply as this, it penetrates every cell. We want the donor to be a person, and we want to know them.

Day one in the lab consists of getting to know our lab mates, meeting the donors, choosing and naming one, and finally beginning our work.
Our bodies are comprised of many layers and in Gil’s lab, we look at one layer at a time.

Day one is reflecting the skin, which means we expose the underside of this elastic covering and reveal the superficial fascia that lays below. In the layer of the superficial fascia, you will find capillaries, nerves, lymphatic vessels and nodes. The face is unique in that this layer also houses the muscles of expression. These muscles have no boney attachment and are too thin to palpate but they are responsible for the unique lines and character of our wrinkles as we age. I loved exploring the facial muscles. I learned the names of the muscles as they emerged and began to look differently at the faces around me that were so animated, as together we uncovered the fatty layer of superficial fascia. Gil talks about this being the sensual, emotional and under appreciated layer. All kinds of inspiring conversations begin during this phase of dissection.

The superficial fascia (or adipose) layer we are told, is undervalued and under appreciated in medical labs. It is only seen as “fat” and the sooner it’s out of the way, the better. I have not participated in any dissection other than Gil’s, so I can only comment on this to say that when I supervise lab visits for the massage students (where the dissection is already done), there is no adipose on those bodies. I have seen enough bodies to know that its absence is not because it did not exist.

Once the superficial fascia is removed, skeletal muscle is revealed. This is an exciting stage of dissection. We get to see the muscles as they emerge. These are structures we can recognize and name, but seeing them wrap around the bones is something a textbook can never accurately reveal on a flat page. It’s a bit like going to the monuments in the countries of the world you have only seen in pictures. They look exactly like the photos, yet are not even close to what you experience.

The head, again is unique because it changes form entirely once it’s fatty layer is removed. Because there are only a few muscles in the face region that attach to bone, the skull is fully exposed along with the strong muscles of the jaw and neck.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at a skull, I find it very difficult to see a face. Since this dissection, I now look at faces differently. I see how evidence of a person’s personality shows up through permanent lines in the skin of the face as we age. I see how the strength of the masseter muscle defines a persons jaw. I see how thick and layered the muscles of the neck are organized to hold the weight of the head, and how these have the potential to change based on our habitual posture.

This dissection has only just begun… The donors, while only a small group of us get to know them intimately, continue to share their gift through our telling and re-telling of what we came to know of them. We can never know how far reaching that may be.

The Sagittal Cut (part I)

I am often asked by clients, colleagues and friends, if I am going to “cut up dead bodies” this year. This phrase is meant to be playful and poke fun at my obsession with the human body, but I believe it’s also a way for the speaker to depersonalize what it is they think, I am actually doing in the lab.

Language is important in the lab. The gift of the donor is so profoundly appreciated, none of us would dare utter an indecent word related to the work being done. The language we use defines the dissection in ways that honour structure, function and organization. It’s a language of objectivity which allows for space between my intellectual cognition and emotional self. The term “human dissection” carries with it a very different picture than “cutting up dead bodies”. You can see how the two refer to the same thing but, they are not even close.

In April of this year, I participated in my favourite dissection to date. For the first time ever, I entered the lab with a plan of what I wanted to see. I spent all 42 hours engrossed in one project: the head and neck.
It is typically more of a challenge to objectify this region and the physical work of dissecting here is difficult because of the delicate structures involved. This made it easy for my lab mates to give me exclusive access to our donor’s cervical spine and cranium.

I had planned to explore the facial muscles, blood and lymph vessels, the muscles that move the eyes, the deep sinuses and how they connect to one another, the muscles of mastication, the bones and joints of the cervical spine and the muscles that traverse between the skull and the mid back. I wanted to see the passages of nerves into the brain, the glands of salivation, the trabeculae of the bones and the structure of the intervertebral discs.

Forty-two hours is not a lot of time, but I tell you, the wealth of information I took in during those hours will probably take me more than that time to write out. So here is your introduction to the writings to follow.

I have a feeling that there is a profound curiosity beneath the inquiries about my work with “dead bodies”, and those of you who have caught yourselves asking… You should read on.